When Donald Trump was elected president, Oakland artist Lukaza Branfman-Verissimo wasted no time. Almost immediately, she grabbed a marker and a plain shirt and essentially created a wearable protest sign. It read, “PROTECT MUSLIM / LATINX / QUEER / BLACK / NATIVE / POCS / FRIENDS.” She took a selfie and posted it to Instagram. Not long after, the artist had created a digital poster that expanded her initial list to include “immigrant,” “trans,” “LGBTQ+,” “low income,” and “artist.” Soon enough, she was silk-screening posters and shirts for anyone interested.
The Oakland artist’s work is typically based in social practice such as gathering people for conversations and collecting oral histories. At the end of 2015, for instance, she did a residency at E.M. Wolfman bookstore that involved hosting open listening sessions to hear people’s stories, then creating a collection of small found-object sculptures inspired by them.
But amid the recent political climate, Branfman-Verissimo has been increasingly interested in making signs. Being the Los Angeles-raised daughter of an Afro-Brazilian father involved in the Brazilian black power movement and a Jewish-American mother with familial ties to the communist party, protest signs are a familiar form, she tells me. But Branfman-Verissimo’s new body of work both champions and complicates the medium.
In her solo show, I like the way you look at my brown black blue body, I don’t like how my brown black blue body has been historically looked at, currently at the brand-new Lago Projects in Oakland, Branfman-Verissimo digs into the question of what it means to be a brown person in America today. As she puts it, the show is “thinking about brown bodies in my community of Oakland and nationally through examining my own self and looking at the dualities of being a mixed brown-black-white body.” And she does so, in part, through signage.
Three black and white signs command the gallery. Their textured, inconsistent lettering feels as personal as a signature, but the form itself calls to mind iconic civil rights signs of the ’60s declaring “I AM A MAN.” Branfman-Verissimo’s though, declares, “PART WHITE SUGAR PART BLACK GIRL MAGIC.” That’s her ode to self, a statement about the way that her body is looked at by others every day.
“WRAPPED HELD PIERCED MARKED” screams another sign, dedicated to the way black and brown women have historically been treated in Oakland. The third, which reads “PASSION FRUIT,” alludes to the artist’s Afro-Brazilian heritage. She made it “just thinking about all the times my name has been called ‘exotic’ throughout my life,” she said.
Arranged in a triangle, the trio of paintings work like signposts to position the artist’s place in the world. But in their simplicity, the pieces also belie the limits of language when it comes to such ineffable notions as a person’s identity. Like bodies placed into colored categories, labels can only relay so much about someone’s sense of self, the work seems to say.
Walking past the signs reveals that each is propped up by a blue altar made of small sculptures and collected objects. The altar to the self includes a lukasa, a pneumonic sculpture used in Congolese culture to tell stories (also, the artist’s namesake); while the altar to women of color includes a framed list of black and brown women killed by the Oakland police last year. Each speaks to the meaning that lies behind words but can’t quite be articulated.
Why, though, are the altars blue? Branfman-Verissimo became infatuated with the color when she discovered that the path by which indigo arrived in the Americas mimicked the migration routes of her ancestors: arriving in Brazil, then traveling into the south of the United States via the slave trade. “When I use blue, I feel like it’s a direct honoring of my roots,” she says.
Typically, Branfman-Verissimo’s work is partly identifiable by the fact that it’s almost entirely blue. But in I like the way you look at my brown black blue body, I don’t like how my brown black blue body has been historically looked at the blue pieces stand out as extra authentic, speaking to all that’s left unsaid in the chasm between black and white.
“In the name of the show, in repeating these three colors —black, brown, and blue — I’m asking, ‘How do I paint my identity? My blood?” says Branfman-Verissimo. “Blue, black, and white mixed together is a painting of me.”